by C. Don Adinuba
If you ask Nigerians to name past power ministers randomly, it is most likely that they will start with Bart Nnaji, the preeminent engineering professor in the United States who has for almost two decades been almost synonymous with history-changing initiatives in the Nigerian electric power sector. Nnaji left office over a decade ago. He served for only one year, from July 2011 to August 2012.
Even when he was the Presidential Adviser on Power and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Power (PTFP), Nnaji was the face of the country’s power sector. Not just as regards the reforms which would break the Federal Government’s monopoly of electricity generation, transmission, and distribution, but also increased the availability of electricity in the homes, offices, and businesses of the Nigerian people. The Ministry of Power faded out of the popular imagination. During the one year, Nnaji was a presidential adviser, the country’s electricity quantum leaped by 1000MW, well more than a third of what the nation was hitherto generating from its three hydro and three thermal stations. The PTFP comprised some of the best minds Nigeria can afford in not just power engineering but fields as diverse as civil service, management, public communication, and mind management.
Under Nnaji’s leadership as the power minister for only one year, Nigeria’s power generation grew dramatically to almost 5000MW—with almost the entire power loaded on the country’s sole transmission network without collapsing. The outcome was constant power supply in most homes and offices for months, an unprecedented experience in independent Nigeria. Like most things Nigerian, however, the good times couldn’t last. He resigned when he saw the integrity of the privatisation of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) being compromised by the high and mighty in society. The Economist of London was to lament in its publication of September 8, 2012, that Nnaji’s resignation “a bright star has been extinguished” in Nigeria. Constant power supply immediately took a flight from the country and has yet to return. The transmission network, for instance, is still so weak and fragile on account of old age and poor maintenance. And everyone has forgotten the Super 760KV transmission lines he was working on because those who came after him couldn’t grapple with the challenge. Nigeria still has only the 132KV and 330KV transmission lines.
And it is for good reason that Nnaji has become a recurring decimal in any genuine effort to reposition the power sector. Just last week he received a thunderous ovation at the First Conference of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) On Market Opportunities for the Southeast and South-south held at the National Technology Acquisition Centre in Aba that the 188-megawatt Geometric Power plant in the Osisioma Industrial Layout, Aba, will start to generate electricity within two months. The thermal plant will begin generation from one of its three turbines with a plate capacity of 47MW each, and the second will join the moment the team of KSE Energy of Turkey and the team of Geometric Power engineers led by Ben Caven, easily the most revered professional power engineer in Nigeria’s history, confirm that the plant is, as the new popular saying goes, good to go.
The commissioning of the Geometric Power turbines will mark a golden era in Nigeria’s industrialisation quest—Aba is deservedly reputed to be the capital of indigenous innovation and manufacturing in Nigeria. More importantly, it will represent the triumph of the new Nigerian spirit, an irrepressible determination to succeed despite all odds. There is nothing the reactionary forces who worked for Nnaji’s sudden resignation in 2012 as power minister considered too sacred to do in order to frustrate even his private enterprise, the Geometric Power group, despite its imminent significant contribution to the nation’s electric power development and the nation’s socioeconomic growth.
The powers that be bluntly refused to recognise the 2004 agreement, as amended in 2005, between the Federal Government and its agencies like the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) and the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), on the one hand, and Geometric Power, on the other, giving the latter the power to generate and supply power to individuals and organisations in nine of the 17 local government areas in Abia State. In spite of protests by the BPE and other government bodies that the Aba Ring-fenced Area was not part of the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) coverage area, the Federal Government remained unmoved. Even when bids by companies and consortia which wanted to be the EEDC core investors were evaluated and the BPE recommended to the National Economic Council that only the Eastern Electric consortium which included the five Southeast governments and led by Nnaji’s Geometric had the technical and financial capacity to run the EEDC, the federal administration turned a blind eye to the BPE analysis and recommendation.
The legal battle which followed the Federal Government’s inexplicable action lasted nine years, and during this period Geometric Power was compelled to suspend major engineering work in the Aba Ring-fenced Area. The area was eventually handed over in February, last year, to the Geometric Power group when the Africa Export Import (AfriExim) Bank, convinced of not the economic viability but the socioeconomic imperative of the work of Geometric Power in Aba and its environs, provided it with $26m to pay out the EEDC from the ring-fenced area and complete the job it suspended in November 2013 when the Federal Government handed over the area to the EEDC as part of the fundamentally flawed PHCN privatisation.
Even under the Muhammadu Buhari government which made the return of the Aba Ring-fenced Area to it possible, Geometric Power continued to feel the full weight of the “Federal Might”. On April 19, 2023, for example, the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) gave Aba Power, a Geometric Power group member and Nigeria’s newest electricity distribution company which commenced operations effectively only last September, 30 days to settle its N869m debt to Federal Government operators in the power sector for ancillary services. But 24 hours later, it disconnected all Aba Power 29 feeders from the national grid, giving it no chance to settle the debt. All nine LGAs it serves in Abia State were thrown into utter darkness for a whole 10 days.
Following a nationwide cry of discrimination against the TCN, the firm cut off from the national grid only feeders of one of the electricity distribution firms with over 300 feeders owing it N51bn. Pray, how does N53b compare with a mere N869? Still, the nine LGAs in Abia State would have remained in darkness much longer if not for the then Minister of Power, Engineer Abubakar Aliyu, who was dismayed that the TCN could disconnect the Kaduna Electricity Distribution Company and the Kano Electricity Distribution Company, and so ordered the TCN to restore all feeders to the network.
Once the Geometric Power turbines are commissioned within two months, the organisation will no longer have to import power from other power plants. Geometric Power will have more power than its customers in Aba and environs may need.
Professor Nnaji will make a most rewarding study in resilience, foresight, integrity, and patriotism in entrepreneurship under the present Nigerian firmament which many consider toxic to investment. As Nnaji marks his 67th birthday on Thursday, July 13, all Nigerians wish him many more years of good health, progress, and continuous service to God and humankind.
Adinuba, a former Commissioner in Anambra State, is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.